Deep in the Ozark Mountains in Southern Missouri, there is still a time and place that remains untouched by the ravages of time. The trees are so thick that you’ve got to hack them away if you want any sunlight to reach your little garden. But to get to the garden, you’ve got to pick out thousands of rocks that seem to multiply every time a hoe hits the soil. Hunting is not a sport. It’s a way of life. It’s about food on the table.
It’s in those hills that my own history begins. My father, Cecil Ray High, was a narrow toothpick of a man. He was the oldest of eight children. They crammed themselves in a three room log cabin that still stands to this day.
Life was hard. It was made harder not only from their environment, but from the people around them. I was named after my great grandfather William. He was a reported dead eye with a rifle. His claim to fame was having shot the ear lobe off a revenue agent out to collect taxes on his still. Later, after seeing my great grandfather in town, the revenue agent remarked, “William, look at my ear—you nearly killed me!’ To which my great grandfather calmly replied, “If I wanted to kill you, I would aimed about two inches over.”
My own grandfather, Clifford, was a harsh mean man. His first wife died of leukemia which left him to raise eight kids on his own. By all accounts, he wasn’t much good at it. Each one of those eight kids did their best to get out of those Ozark Mountains as quick as they could.
That’s where my father’s journey began. At eighteen, he joined the military and soon found himself on a ship overseas to Japan. He rose to the rank of Sergeant First Class and found himself a career. He also found himself a wife. In post World War II Japan, there weren’t many single young men left. A Japanese woman found herself with two options: marry an old Japanese man or a young American serviceman.
My mom, Kimi, was the adventurous one and chose the American serviceman. She was short and pretty—a twinkle in her eye back then I suppose. She was never loud and vocal. By nature, Japanese people are all stoics and loyal to a fault.
It wasn’t long however before their tour of service ended and they were back on a boat to America. They soon had a child in tow, then another, followed by three more. I was the fifth child in a family of six.
My dad found it hard to make ends meet on military pay so after nine years he called it quits and went back to the working world. The journey they had together is much longer and more circuitous than these pages can contain. Suffice it to say, these were years of struggle. We were poor.
The first house I remember was a two bedroom rental. The house had no heat other than a big kerosene stove that occupied the center of our little kitchen. My mom stuffed three little kids in a single bed for warmth. We woke up on winter mornings with ice on the inside of the windows. Despite the lack of relative comfort, I loved that place. There were miles of hills and woods all around us, and my mom would let us explore those woods from dawn to dusk. My dad, ever the hillbilly, made sure we had cows, chickens, pigs and a huge garden. The garden, I think, was mainly for the benefit of the kids because it gave us ample opportunity to learn the distinction of weeds that needed to be pulled versus vegetables that needed to stay. I still have some of those calluses. An electrical fire ended our stay at that house.
It was after the house fire that my dad said his luck had run out. He turned to the bottle, and life never really did seem to get better. He bounced from job to job. He tried his hand at carpentry, ran a garage, did some roofing, and helped run a bar. After work, he always seemed to close out his day at the tavern with a few beers. If he came home straight from work, we kids just ran and hid. His anger was fierce until he eased some of the edge with a couple of beers.
By the time I was 10, he was a raging alcoholic and a chain smoker. He woke in the mornings with shaking hands and uncontrollable fits of coughing. The coughing grew in force until he was coughing up blood. Even an early morning beer couldn’t stop the blood. After weeks of pestering, he finally went to the doctor and got the diagnosis: lung cancer.
When my mom told me that my dad had cancer, I didn’t appreciate at all what it meant. After all, they told me the doctors might find some miraculous cure. I hung my hat on that and skipped off to play.
But there was no cure to be found. Eighteen months later, just one week before Christmas, December 18, 1974, my mom got the phone call that every wife and mother dreads. Her husband had passed away.
So what do you do if you are 5’1” Japanese woman with six kids to raise, no life insurance, no income, can’t drive and never worked outside the home? You give your life away.
Even in the throes of my dad’s cancer, my mom faced perhaps her greatest crisis. Her own mother passed away. She wanted desperately to go back to Japan and bury her mom. In fact, she’d not been back to Japan since the day she boarded that boat in 1956. But to go back meant she would have to leave my dad, the kids who needed her not to mention we’d have to go to one of those high interest loan places to send her back. She didn’t go.
And believe me, there were plenty of reasons to leave and not come back. My dad’s alcoholism had sucked every penny from the family. His illness only worsened our finances. There were some days that a single pot of beans seemed to stretch for a week. I think every one of us kids came to hate beans and cornbread. I’m not sure how we kept the creditors away.
The alcoholism wasn’t the worst of it. It was my dad’s violent anger. The flashes of verbal abuse swept wide, although she bore the brunt of it. One Christmas, the Salvation Army showed up with presents for the kids. We were that “poor family” everyone wanted to help. My dad was off at the tavern when they came. I suspect the worst part of it the alcohol was knowing that she didn’t have the money to buy groceries—even shoes for the kids.
A neighbor kid somehow got us signed up to play league baseball. It was my dream. Baseball was my outlet. At the time of the first game, I didn’t have a pair of tennis shoes. All I had were some clunky shoes with two inch heels, and I was the pitcher. It was my mom who rescued me. She begged my dad to drive her to the store and let her buy me a pair of tennis shoes. Her pleading won out, and I had myself a pair of brown tennis shoes just in time for the game. I’ve never cherished a set of shoes as much as those.
After his passing, my mom did the only thing she knew. She got her driver’s license at age 46, and got a job. She began working in the local school cafeteria. By working at the school, she could still see us at lunchtime and be home when we got home. She was up early fixing us a brown bag lunch, and back at the stove in the evening fixing us dinner.
In looking back, those years were a period of recovery and healing. We found God’s grace and sustenance. God began to visit our family. A local pastor talked to my mom about Jesus, and she trusted Him. My oldest brother had a dream too. He got a scholarship and headed off to college. There, he also found out about this person of Jesus. He came back and talked to my sister and myself about this person of Christ.
As for myself, even at 12 and 13 years old, I found myself immersed in the Bible. There, I met a God who I learned was my Father even in a way that my earthly father could not. I was fascinated by the stories of Moses, Joshua, David & Goliath, Elijah and Elisha. From the pages of scripture, I learned to have the wings of a dream.
The strength of my mother coupled with the strength of family and faith drew us together. For the first time, we had family dinners together. And without the drain of the tavern bill there was actually a little margin. The Bible is clear that God defends the widow and is a father to the fatherless. He proved that to our family.
It’s really an amazing thing. We were a family that was just dirt poor. We lived with outhouses, welfare, hand me downs, rental houses, high interest loan companies, and cars that could just barely run. But God had a different plan. My quiet little mother with her deep strength showed us that when there was a job in front of you—well, you just did it. In all of that mix of pain and struggle, God inspired a dream in each of us.
My brother wanted to coach. My sister wanted to teach. Another brother elected to become an engineer. Yet another sister chose the advertising world. All of this came from a family that no one expected anything from.
Why? What sense does one make of this? I think it starts simply with the giving. When my dad was faced with the greatest trial of his life—a house that burned down—he turned inward. His luck had run out so he turned to comfort himself. He selfishly chose the bottle instead of his faith or his family.
On the other hand, when my mom faced her own point of crisis—her mother’s funeral—she chose her family. All along the way, she gave away her life and her dreams. She fought for her children even if it meant a pair of shoes. She stood beside her husband when it would’ve been easier to leave. She reveled in our successes—every high school graduation, every scholarship, every college degree—were hers in some measure.
One quick story deserves mentioning. When I was a high school senior, I was rated high in my class, and with it came the scholarship offers. One particular scholarship came from a women’s club. They wanted to award the scholarship in person and allowed me to offer an acceptance speech. In accepting the award, I was able to tell them about my mom and her inspiration. Some of the other moms in that room day were crying. I know that my mom was proud of me that day, but I really knew the next day. After getting home from school, she had a fresh chocolate cake waiting for me—love, spoken in Japanese culture.
It is no coincidence that today I work in the generosity world. After receiving a degree in secondary language arts education from the University of Missouri, I went on to the University of Kansas School of Law. From there, I practiced law with one of the largest law firms in the region, Blackwell Sanders Peper Martin LLC. That career continued with a smaller specialty firm, Sanders Conkright & Warren.
Eventually after volunteering in the urban core, God showed me my calling. I’m now the CEO of the The Signatry: A Global Christian Foundation. There, we teach people that we are stewards or managers of God’s resources. We are mere aliens on this planet who are just passing through. Our final home is heaven. With that recognition, the question is how we’ll utilize the resources that God has given us.
Through our work, we get to work with individuals, families, companies, ministries and churches all around the globe. Some of that work is plain and simple showing people how to give. Not long ago, I worked with a woman who, while not wealthy, wanted to do something “big” with her resources. She gave 165 acres of virgin ground that sits adjacent to her homestead. Now she goes out on her front porch, looks at her land, and instead of land, sees people from every tribe and nation gathered at her door.
I’m just an ordinary man, but I feel I’ve lived a most extraordinary life. Such is the way of history. Our country was founded by a few great ideas: faith, freedom and family. It is indeed a government for the people and by the people. We stand as stewards of those great ideas. What will we do with those ideas in this day? Will we corrupt them and squander them in materialism and in lives spent on ourselves? Or will we dream the big dreams of a nation where men and women can worship freely?
I know that we can, and we will if we remind ourselves of the lessons of the past. Our aim should not be to live for ourselves, but live to give. Such is the generous life. Such is the way of hope. All of this my mother taught me.